By Borzou Daragahi
The United Nations is probing allegations that the United Arab Emirates shipped weapons to support a Libyan warlord’s factions, in violation of an international arms embargo, a key official told The Independent.
The UN has been investigating numerous allegations of arms shipments to either of the two sides in the years-long Libyan conflict.
But coming under particular scrutiny by international officials and Libya experts are allegations that the UAE, an ally of the UK, US, and France, shipped weapons to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar even after the self-styled field marshal declared the head of the UN-backed authority in Tripoli, Fayez al-Sarraj, a “terrorist” and issued a warrant for his arrest and other civilian officials.
“We’re tracking reports of all kinds of weapons or systems coming in. We have seen multiple reports of weapons flowing in,” Stephanie Williams, the deputy head of the UN mission to Libya, said in an interview from Tripoli on Monday.
“We are extremely concerned about this. This is not the kind of escalation we need. We need to minimise this.”
The vast oil-rich north African nation has been crippled by violent civil strife since the 2011 Nato-backed downfall of Muammar Gaddafi’s long-time dictatorship.
Two loose alliances dominate the country: a collection of eastern militias led by Mr Haftar under the umbrella of the Libyan National Army, and a UN-backed Government of National Accord anchored in Tripoli.
Mr Haftar launched a surprise attack on Tripoli on 4 April after making quick gains against militias ruling the country’s lawless south. But his offensive on the capital has united powerful rival militias across western Libya, and gains have been minimal.
Ms Williams, a former US diplomat, said a UN panel of experts is investigating claims that the UAE shipped a planeload of weapons to support Mr Haftar’s forces in eastern Libya on Friday, as well as other claims of weapons being sent to western Libyan forces that are fighting to defend the capital against his 12-day offensive.
A source in eastern Libya denied any arrival of fresh weapons. The UAE has not commented on the allegations. In the past, Mr Haftar’s forces have flaunted the arrival of newly refurbished fighter jets and military vehicles, posting videos and pictures on Facebook.
The UN panel last year cited evidence suggesting both the UAE and Turkey were providing weapons and military equipment to rival sides in Libya.
Both Egypt, a security partner of the west despite human rights abuses, and the UAE, have been aggressively supporting Mr Haftar because they perceive the rival government in Tripoli as a front for the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, which they have vowed to crush.
“They are going for it right now, so they’re going to put all their effort into it,” said Theodore Karasik, a researcher at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington consultancy. “The question is whether or not they’re going into overstretch.”
Qatar called on Tuesday for the arms embargo against Mr Haftar to be properly enforced.
In an interview with Italian daily la Repubblica, foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said the conflict could be stopped “by rendering effective the embargo against Haftar and preventing those countries that have supplied him with munitions and state-of-the-art weapons from continuing to do so”.
He later specifically referred to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – three countries which severed ties with Qatar in 2017 in a regional dispute.
One analyst said Mr Haftar and his Arab allies may have chosen to launch the attack after spotting what was described as suspicious plane traffic from Turkey to western Libya, and hoped to take advantage of possible aviation disruption during the planned 6 April switch of operations from Istanbul’s old Ataturk airport to a major new airport.
“The Turks were moving a lot of personnel and other stuff between Tripoli and Istanbul,” said one analyst briefed by an Emirati official. “The Emiratis took advantage of the closure of the airport. As a military strategist, you want to take advantage of this kind of situation – even if it’s 10 hours.”
Both the US and UK have been somewhat wary of Mr Haftar. US Middle East envoy David Satterfield told reporters on Monday that Washington wants a “political arrangement” between the conflicting sides.
“We are concerned at the mounting civilian casualties. We are concerned at damage to vital civilian infrastructure,” he said.
A UK-drafted resolution demanding an end to the fighting was circulated among UN security council members on Tuesday.
The resolution, obtained by the Associated Press, also calls on all parties to immediately recommit to attending the UN-facilitated political dialogue “and work toward a comprehensive political solution to the crisis in Libya”.
But the security council is divided over the conflict.
Mr Haftar has been backed for years by the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia and France, which see in him a potential strongman to bring order to the country even as they have also publicly backed the UN peace process and other international initiatives to stitch the country back together.
Ms Williams warned that Mr Haftar’s attack has halted several long-term peace efforts, including attempts to roll back the influence and presence of militias in the capital, dialogue between Mr Haftar and Mr Serraj, and a UN peace conference which was scheduled for this week in Ghadames.
“That was a process that was over a year’s worth of work to bring Libyans together from all different parts of the country,” she said. “We had a tremendous response. This was going to mark a real turning page.”
An African Union effort to draw Libyans together for a summit this summer also appears to have collapsed.
The conflict has already displaced 18,000 people and left at least 147 people dead, including civilians. Mr Serraj told the Italian paper Corriere della Sera that the conflict in Tripoli could create hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Amnesty International has warned that more than 700 refugees and migrants were reportedly trapped in a detention centre near the fighting, where they lack access to food and water.
Ms Williams described shortages of food and medicine in the capital, where the UN has urged a humanitarian ceasefire. She said the battered dinar had lost further value, damaging the purchasing power of ordinary Libyans.
“There are thousands caught in the conflict zone who have asked to come out,” said Ms Williams. “We need for the fighting to stop so that the ambulances can get in and treat the wounded.”
Mr Haftar’s forces have described the fight for Tripoli as an effort to root out “terrorist” militias. LNA spokesperson Ahmed al-Mismari vowed to take the war to the centre of Tripoli.
Critics of the government in Tripoli have noted that several controversial extremist figures have joined the fight against Mr Haftar, even though the Serraj government has disavowed them.
But Ms Williams warned that Mr Haftar’s offensive has empowered Tripoli militias that the UN and its partners have spent the past year trying to stifle.
“A prolonged siege or street-to-street fighting in Tripoli is going to be crippling and will frankly affect the national security of not only the immediate neighbours of Libya but frankly of southern Europe and more broadly. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy by creating an environment where extremism will flourish.”
Bel Trew contributed to this report
Borzou Daragahi is International Correspondent for The Independent. He has been covering the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Europe since 2002. He has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist three times. He serves as a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.